Land of feints and skullers

IssueSeptember 2005
Comment by Rob Fairmichael

It is one of the ironies ofmodern history that some one looking for a safe place to live in the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" might today choose the capital of Northern Ireland over the capital of England (and perhaps even more ironic that the British government looks set to make some of the same mistakes it made in Northern Ireland thirty-odd years ago). However a quick glimpse at recent newspapers in Northern Ireland will show you that life has not been transformed by the IRA statement of 28 July that arms should be dumped.

Violence persists

The loyalist feud (UVF and LVF) continues with shootings and a few deaths; the UVF literally took over an East Belfast housing estate to force LVF families out. Polish immigrants narrowly escaped death in one racist fire bomb attack in Co Derry. Sectarian attacks reported to the police run at two a day (the actual number probably being very much larger). Two pipebombs exploded at Catholic homes in Co Antrim. Military solution republicans (so-called "dissidents") attempted to bomb a Co Armagh police station, sparking a riot. Leading unionist party the DUP spoke of a two-year period to restore devolved government and possible sanctions it would exercise if the British government pressed ahead against its wishes.

Only words?

Meanwhile, the IRA statement said that "All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms," and, more importantly "The leadership ... has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign." Volunteers were "instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means".

The IRA movement away from armed struggle has been going on for two and a half decades, since the Hunger Strikes, and dumping arms is the logical conclusion of that process (one which should have come directly after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998). Whether any weapons will be kept is not very relevant as more can always be purchased if there is the will and the money. It is not expected that the IRA will forgo money coming from such operations as diesel laundering and cigarette smuggling; dump arms they may do but they haven't gone away, you know, even if it will be mainly an old comrades' benevolent association. But there is currently no indication that loyalist paramilitary forces, raising money from extortion and drug smuggling, will disband in response to the "threat" from the IRA being lifted.

Optimist vs pessimist

I see two major options as regards optimism and pessimism in Northern Ireland at the moment. A pessimistic optimist would say that in the short term there are going to be considerable problems but that with the eventual restoration of devolved government at Stormont things will settle down and slowly the issues that have bedevilled Northern Ireland will either be dealt with, forgotten, or put aside.

An optimistic pessimist, on the other hand, might say that while some things are making, and will make, progress, nothing has fundamentally altered the nature of sectarianism and despite political progress the reality of division has not changed one iota; the negative forces live to fight another day while people presently muddle through. Things will eventually "settle down" -- whatever that means -- but the forces of sectarianism, racism and paramilitarism live on, though the ball is still in play and it is actually quite early in the match.

There are, unfortunately, many issues remaining to be dealt with in Northern Ireland of which the newspaper references above only indicate some. The sense of powerlessness experienced in both communities, Catholic/nationalist, and Protestant/unionist, but particularly the latter, is an indication that all is not well. This is where the concept of nonviolence and non-violent struggle could come in and where there could be a synthesis with a community action and political (with a very small "p") agenda; bringing this about is another day's work.